As a long-time Virgin Galactic ticket-holder, I have mixed feelings about Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos’ planned trip to space July 20, not coincidentally on the 52-year anniversary of America’s Apollo 11 moon landing. On one hand, the Bezos excursion will be historic, launching the first prominent billionaire civilian to the final frontier, and via his own Blue Origin company. On the other hand, I had always thought VG founder Sir Richard Branson would get there first, having been at the space game a lot longer than Bezos.
Both Branson and another multi-billionaire, SpaceX/Tesla founder Elon Musk, have stated their personal ambitions to go to space, too. Musk’s program is the most ambitious of the three, and the farthest along, although he hasn’t announced when he might launch himself. SpaceX has flown several successful missions to the International Space Station, carrying cargo, and, more recently, government astronauts. But both Bezos’ and Branson’s spacecraft will only take passengers suborbital, for tourism, meaning a jaunt just beyond 50 miles above the Earth and for only a few minutes, then a quick reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Musk’s flights are orbital, a much more complicated endeavor.
In 2010, I purchased a $200,000 ticket with Branson’s outfit, putting 10 percent down, amid speculation that VG was close to inaugurating commercial space tourism service via its SpaceShipTwo rocket-plane. The ticket purchase put me in line as passenger No. 610. Branson has insisted that he will be VG’s passenger No. 1 when the company starts scheduled operations so, like Bezos, he is putting his hide where his mouth is.
All of the suborbital excitement began in 2004, when Scaled Composites’ Burt Rutan put his three-passenger SpaceShipOne into space twice within two weeks, thereby winning the coveted $10-million Ansari X-Prize. Speculation was high just after that milestone, that SS1 could easily be grossed-up to carry eight crew members, instead of just three. Branson bought into the concept with VG.
But the scaling-up process proved more complicated than had originally been envisioned, and SS2’s launch date got pushed out year, after year, after year, until 2014 when the company had a fatal accident. It destroyed VG’s spacecraft and killed one of its two pilots. The cause of the crash was deemed pilot error, not anything to do with the soundness of the craft itself, but SS1 was VG’s only working vehicle, so the lengthy process of building another began. In the meantime, Bezos was working on his own rocket.
Five years later, in 2019, VG’s new SS2 was ready and reliable enough to test, with two pilots and a non-pilot aboard. Beth Moses, VG’s head of astronaut training, made history by becoming VG’s first civilian astronaut. Again, speculation was high that VG would begin regular operations soon after. But it still hasn’t happened.
There is a rumor that Branson might fly this 4th-of-July weekend, to beat Bezos to space. I think the idea is far-fetched. VG will not risk its founder’s life on a craft that’s only been to space a few times. Bezos’ New Shepard spacecraft has had more than a dozen successful tests to space.
That said, and this concerns some, Bezos’ rocket does not have pilots onboard, whereas Branson’s does – two of them. Like with new driverless vehicles, if something unexpected happens, there is arguably more risk without a pilot than with one. When Apollo 11 was about to land in a dangerous crater on the moon in 1969, for example, Neil Armstrong took over the controls from NASA’s computers, and successfully flew beyond the crater and landed safely, with just a few seconds of fuel remaining. Granted, today’s computers are much more sophisticated than those in the 1960s, but still.
The other concern is Bezos’ great personal wealth, approaching $200 billion. If something happens to him on his inaugural flight, who knows what will happen in the markets, with behemoth Amazon.com having such a huge market cap? A high-profile mishap with Bezos could also destroy the fledgling space tourism movement, with bad press.
If Bezos’ flight is successful, though, it will strongly usher in commercial space tourism movement, likely encouraging other small space companies and venture capitalists to jump onboard, and certainly putting more pressure on Branson and Musk. Competition, after all, is good. Look at what happened in the airline industry.
So there is a lot riding on Bezos (pun intended), and the insurance companies that must be covering him. God speed, Jeff. We are all watching – and praying.